Who were the prophets of the early hackers?

I learned a new way of thinking about social behavior at Agile CultureCon last week – Dave Logan’s taxonomy of tribal stages and his interestingly specialized notion of what a “prophet” is. For review, see Logan’s TED talk.

Logan explains the distribution of tribal stages as follows: Stage 1, “Life Sucks”, is the violent and profoundly dysfunctional tribalism of gangs and prisons (approximately 2% of tribes); Stage 2, “My life sucks”, is bureaucracy (about 22% of tribes); Stage 3, “I’m great (but you’re not)!” is most of business and academia (about 48% of tribes); Stage 4: “We’re great!” is where you start to see serious creativity, tribal self-awareness, and collective sense of mission (about 22% of tribes); and Stage 5 “Life’s great!” is high-creative behavior totally driven by values rather than ego or struggle against some adversary (about 2% of tribes).

A “prophet”, in Logan’s model, is somebody who expresses the deepest shared values of a tribe and invites people in it to change stage (and fuse with other tribes at the new stage). Because most people, most of the time, live in tribes with a stage 3 culture, the most common upward transition (and the most common kind of prophet) is from stage 3 to stage 4.

I noted in a previous post that hearing this in a talk made the hair on the backs of my arms stand up. Because I have lived through, and was one of the prophets of, the hacker culture’s transition from largely unconscious mixed stage-3/stage-4 to fully conscious mostly Stage 4 behavior (“We’re great!”) in the 1990s.

But. I am by no means sufficiently ignorant or egotistical to think I was our only prophet. Most obviously there was Richard Stallman a decade before me, issuing a stage 4 call to higher values around “free software”. But because I was a historian before I was a prophet, I can’t really stop there. I find myself asking who the earlier prophets were!

I think I’ve identified one. Remember that technical excellence is not sufficient; a prophet has to be a person who speaks the desires and deep values of the tribe around him, and enlarges it by forming links with other tribes which then fuse together, displaying a higher stage of behavior.

(Logan is not very explicit about the fusing part; he notes that it happens and is an important function of tribal leadership, but in none of his talks does he get explicit about the fact that fused tribes must frequently crack the Dunbar limit. I mean, if a prophet fuses two large and individually successful tribes that are each hanging out near the Dunbar limit of population, this has to happen.)

So, thinking about this in the context of the hacker culture, the pre-RMS name that jumps out at me is Larry Wall, the inventor of Perl and the patch utility, in the early 1980s. Then and now, he has spoken in prophetic terms about art, beauty, play, and service to others. In retrospect it seems to me that the early Perl hackers were among the first of our subtribes to start exhibiting Stage 4 “We’re great!” most of the time, following Larry into that.

Larry is the first prophet I think I can definitely identify in our tradition. But that may only be because in the early 1980s I was a relative n00b and possibly not clued in enough to notice other prophets operating at more social distance from me. Various questions occur to me:

The IETF. I’m certain I saw it exhibiting stage 4 behavior in 1983, when the leaders of what was then the Network Working Group egolessly processed my one-sentence demolition of their plan to abolish the functional domains. If that had been a stage 3 tribe they’d probably have just booted the smart-alec kid I then was out of the room.

So, who was their prophet; who, in that tribe, said “We’re great!” and lifted them out of stage 3? My suspicions fall on Jon Postel or Fred Baker, but I don’t know enough about the early IETF to be sure.

Who were the prophets of the Model Railroad Club and MIT AI Lab, 1959-1969? Was one of them RMS in an earlier phase of his life? I’m trying to reach Slug Russell so I can ask relevant questions.

Oddly, I’m not sure I can identify a prophet in the early Unix tradition. It’s possible that whole crew was already at Stage 4 when Ken Thompson had his brainstorm – collaboration, playfulness and high creativity certainly seem to have been already well-established traits of the Bell Labs culture when Unix incubated.

I throw this one open to my readers. Where is there evidence of other early Stage 4 transitions in the various subtribes that eventually amalgamated into today’s open-source culture? In what cases can we identify a prophet, the person who said “We’re great!” and made people believe it?

125 thoughts on “Who were the prophets of the early hackers?

  1. Is there a reason for limiting it to the Stage3-4 transition or did I misread?

    It occurs to me that some of those that helped life us out of the Datacenter Priesthood model of computing helped get us out of Stage2 doldrums. Is it possible that some like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ken Olsen and a zillion others of the early microcomputer/minicomputer revolution fit your definition?

  2. >Is there a reason for limiting it to the Stage3-4 transition or did I misread?

    I’m most interested in that one because I think the various hacker subtribes all started at stage 3 ego competition. Yes, the wider question is interesting, but delving into it may risk broadening the discussion too far to be useful.

  3. Are there real-world examples of the so-called “Stage 1″, “Stage 2″ and “Stage 5″ tribes? Can we characterize a “tribe” of programmers in a company which produces proprietary software (like Microsoft) as a “Stage 2″ tribe?

  4. I consider one of the early stage 4 prophets (as you have defined it) to be Grace Hopper. The initial CODASYL in 1959 meeting is where it happened. The outcome was to shift computing from a (Stage 3) science/math focus to wide commercial use and programming by non-scientists.

  5. Hmmm, Grace Hopper certainly was an evangelist much later in her life, e.g. handing out “nanoseconds” at her talks, pieces of wire cut to one nanosecond of signal propagation delay.

  6. >Are there real-world examples of the so-called “Stage 1?, “Stage 2? and “Stage 5? tribes?

    See Logan’s TED talk for examples.

    >Can we characterize a “tribe” of programmers in a company which produces proprietary software (like Microsoft) as a “Stage 2? tribe?

    Everything I’ve heard about Microsoft’s internal culture tells me it’s a particularly dog-eat-dog instance of Stage 3 (their zero-sum employee evaluation system is telling). I suspect a lot of corporate in-house shops are stage 2. I see no intrinsic reason proprietary shops shouldn’t be stage 4, but I’m guessing such exceptions are much less common than Logan’s 22% figure for all tribes.

  7. I would nominate Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy. The design of Lisp alone is a value statement, in favor of interactivity and flexibility and against excrescence, that still serves to inspire what a well-designed piece of software should look like. Both men, along with Licklider, also led and helped to establish the culture at MIT’s Project MAC.

  8. >I would nominate Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy.

    Don’t over-focus on technical excellence – not all technical visionaries are prophets. The right question to ask is whether these men changed the social behavior of the tribes around them in the way that a prophet does, invoking its deepest values to shift the game away from zero-sum ego competition towards egoless high creativity. These two may have been prophets (it wouldn’t suprise me from either of them), but I don’t consider the case established.

    On the other hand, it occurs to me that Fernando J. Corbató (lead on the CTS and Multics projects) almost certainly was one of our prophets. The earliest statement of open-source aspiration I’ve been able to find was his.

    Licklider also seems like a strong possibility.

  9. Where is there evidence of other early Stage 4 transitions in the various subtribes that eventually amalgamated into today’s open-source culture?

    At the risk of pointing out the obvious, you have to start by identifying the various subtribes. Once you do that, you can look at their historical documents and conversations, assuming you can find them. One might think “Usenet archives” but Usenet wasn’t around before the 1980s, right? Also, contacting those tribes’ historians might be useful. For example, Randy Bush wrote a sort of history of FidoNet and its technical standards around 1992 here http://www.fidonet.org/inet92_Randy_Bush.txt

  10. @esr:
    “But. I am by no means sufficiently ignorant or egotistical to think I was our only prophet. Most obviously there was Richard Stallman a decade before me, issuing a stage 4 call to higher values around ‘free software’.”

    Actually, I could argue that Stallman failed because he was making a misguided attempt to take the Stage 3 hacker culture directly to Stage 5 (“high-creative behavior totally driven by values rather than ego or struggle against some adversary”).

  11. Donald Knuth consistently defined computer programming as an art, as opposed to e.g. Dijkstra’s vision of “very large scale application of math”. TAOCP, like many prophetic books, is widely owned, but not quite as widely read :-)

    Knuth also published the TeX / Metafont distribution, which is a fairly large open source code base, and by virtue of the literate programming approach may be among the most OPEN source ever published. I certainly did not read any other piece of source code of comparable size as closely as the TeX source.

  12. I second the nomination of John McCarthy. He helped bring about the fusion of computer hackers and AI workers.

    I would also like to nominate Alan Kay. He provided the drive behind Smalltalk as a means to higher ends.

  13. >directly to Stage 5 (“high-creative behavior totally driven by values rather than ego or struggle against some adversary”).

    Oh, I think “proprietary software” and “software hoarding” qualified as adversaries.

    No. RMS failed to the exact extent that he tried to ideologically hammer the hacker culture into accepting his personal vision, rather than exteriorizing where the tribes wanted to go anyway.

    That’s why Linus was able to displace him as the hackers’ alpha prophet without really trying around 1995-1996. Only Linus didn’t actually want the job, so it landed on me. My flaws and personal quirks may be legion, but at least I knew better than to repeat that specific mistake.

  14. Don’t over-focus on technical excellence – not all technical visionaries are prophets.

    I’m not. Bjarne Stroustrup is an excellent programmer and one of the world’s great language designers; a prophet he is not. I started with the question: “who built the culture that produced Guy Steele and Richard Stallman?”

    The design of Lisp is not just technically excellent; I consider it to be itself a prophetic artifact that changed the social behavior of programmers, because it was the first widespread language to change the dynamic from “write your program on punchcards, submit it to the priesthood, and wait for your output” to “type your program into the terminal and run it yourself”. Lisp empowered programmers to become individual artisans, a step up from cogs in an administrative machine that included computer operators, keypunch operators, system administrators or managers who had to approve your use of computer time, etc.

    I nominated Minsky mainly because of his belief that it was practical to build intelligent machines; much of his technical prowess (as regards computing, anyway) is a product of that belief.

    I want to second LS’s nomination of Alan Kay, whose paper A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages not only set value goals for hackers of the PC era to aspire to, it also sought to change the social behavior of the rest of society with regard to computers by providing a visionary glimpse of their power as a medium for thought and expression.

  15. The design of Lisp is not just technically excellent; I consider it to be itself a prophetic artifact that changed the social behavior of programmers, because it was the first widespread language to change the dynamic from “write your program on punchcards, submit it to the priesthood, and wait for your output” to “type your program into the terminal and run it yourself”.

    *cough*C*cough*

  16. @Jeff Read: What I mean is that I think C had a much more profound influence on hacker culture than Lisp in a lot of ways. Lisp is mostly used by academics, but C’s influence reached into mainstream tech culture in a way that Lisp never did. If you ask me, the turning point from stage 3-4 happened at C. But perhaps my limited viewpoint age stunts my vision somewhat.

  17. I’m not a ham, but from what I know of ham radio culture, it’s a Stage 4 with close ties to hackerdom. Who are its prophets?

  18. >I’m not. Bjarne Stroustrup is an excellent programmer[...]
    He’s good but he is not excelent.

    >[...]and one of the world’s great language designers[...]
    C’mon! Who in his right mind could consider C++ a well designed language?? Maybe once upon a time it was elegant but today it’s ugly and not a necessety. I always try to use C for the tasks that a John Doe programmer would do in C++. (I’m exploring Go, I have a lot of faith in it… Still, I’m waiting for the “different approach” for the garbage collection from the ex-Bell Labs hackers).

  19. >Daniel Franke I’m not a ham, but from what I know of ham radio culture, it’s a Stage 4 with close ties to hackerdom. Who are its prophets?

    This. It might be the organizers of the AARL. But it is a wonderful hacker culture that is decades older than most everything else here.

  20. I’ll second (or third?) that on the hams. I’m not one, but I’ve known many. I’d say stage 4 hacker, too.

  21. Ham radio prophets? The only one that remotely qualifies is Hiram Percy Maxim. (Yeah, his father invented the machine gun, he invented the silencer.) There really hasn’t been a need for prophets in ham radio since his day, as the culture has remained essentially the same even with all the technical changes that have ensued since then.

  22. 1960s – Doug Engelbart. Father of the modern tech demo, mouse, hypertext, bitmapped screen (GUI) and early computer visionary. Shown in the “mother of all demos” in 1968. The forgotten prophet overshadowed by Jobs. Described by Alan Kay as “Moses opening the Red Sea”.

    This dude is at the top of my list of early computing prophets. Complete with 40 years of wandering the desert but did get to live in the promised land.

    1960s-’90s Bob Taylor – SRI, Xerox PARC, ARPANet – Funded or enabled a gazillion folks including Engelbart, Vint Cerf, etc. An enabling Visionary with profound influence in nearly every aspect of modern computing (internet, GUI, etc) with many disciples. Dragged the computing world into the networked computing world. No Bob Talyor and his disciples and the modern computing world is vastly different.

    mid-1970-2012 – Steve Jobs – Apple, NeXT, ’nuff said. Dude was a mega-Prophet complete with RDF aura even when young. Love him or hate him he was THE Computing Prophet of our age is beyond dispute overshadowing all others.

    Late 1970s – Bill Gates – Some might call him the anti-prophet but he was/is the prophet for an entire generation of PC hackers. Stole the computing fire from Big Blue and gave it to the masses.

    Late 1970′s – Jef Raskin – HCI prophet – Macintosh visionary for “appliance computing”.

    All these guys predate your time period (counting as 1983 for RMS).

  23. I would say that SRI was Stage 5 when Englebart was there.

    Xerox Parc Stage 5 in its heyday.

    Apple varied from Stage 4-5 with Jobs to a low point of 2-3 without Jobs.

    1980′s and 1990′s Microsoft and the whole windows hacker period as stage 4-5. Lots of freeware, shareware and enthusiasm in the community. Microsoft was the Google of the era.

  24. What about Doug Engelbart (www.dougengelbart.org)? He was a clear exemplar of egoless behavior and explicitly sought to foster broad-based collaboration, uniting disparate people and groups to solve common problems.

  25. Alan Kay was a big prophet, influential in SmallTalk, Simula, C++, and his aphorisms have spread far past his immediate circle.

    Dave Taylor with his “rough consensus and running code” is another.

  26. Ugh.

    Steve Jobs. NOT a prophet in the sense Eric is talking about. Definitely not a hacker’s prophet. He helped a wider industry shift, and helped actually create a new community completely sideband to hackerdom, but a social-engineering hacker-prophet? Helllll no. Ditto Gates. Are you kidding?

    Folks seem to be mixing up ‘technical paradigm shifter’ with this ‘prophet’ idea, and kind of missing the point. I highly suspect anyone who WASN’T THERE during the period we’re investigating simply won’t be able to say who might have been one of these prophets. Just because someone was widely influential, and thus now widely known, does not mean that they were a Loganian Prophet by default.

    I’d start by looking at certain professors or particularly interesting students at MIT or Berkeley. People who wouldn’t be known widely but who may have cast a longer shadow than memory has felt justified to grant them.

  27. I vote for Knuth.

    Hackers also need the mythical “Golden Age” prophets: Alan Turing and Noam Chomsky

    You know, the ones that laid the foundations of computer science during a Golden Age that never existed, before there even was a hacker culture. Prophets that have been violently misunderstood from day one.
    (I know about Church, Gödel, Kleene and many others, but they are not famous enough)

  28. I’m going to propose von Neumann as an early-stage prophet and hacker. Certainly he propelled us from the plugboard age into the punch card age. He worked on problems like: How do you make a reliable machine out of unreliable components? And: How do you solve Large Problems with minuscule resources?

    Of course, he’s probably also the great-grandfather of buffer-overflow exploits thanks to the whole code=data thing. Maybe that’s enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

  29. ESR writes:

    > On the other hand, it occurs to me that Fernando J. Corbató (lead on the CTS and
    > Multics projects) almost certainly was one of our prophets. The earliest statement
    > of open-source aspiration I’ve been able to find was his.

    Definitely agree with that – I was lucky enough to have been able to use a Multics system for a few years, and it was an amazing revelation to have the entire system source available online. I don’t know whether this was the first such instance, but it was the first expression in my experience of the “open source” philosophy.

    The second that I encountered, back in the days when most computer communication involved serial ports, was the Kermit distribution. That was much more like the open source community of today, with a wide spread of contributors, and the first that I made contributions to.

    Not sure whether either of those, though, would qualify as open source today.

  30. > Of course, he’s probably also the great-grandfather of buffer-overflow exploits thanks to the whole code=data thing. Maybe that’s enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

    Well, without code=data we wouldn’t have functional programming…

  31. I will certainly agree that ham radio is at a high stage (I don’t know enough about the distinctions between stage 4 and stage 5 to comment on which, though).

    It entered this stage very early on and *stayed* there. I don’t know that any one person of small group of people helped push the culture to a higher stage, though. By the time Paul Sega, W9EEA, wrote the Amateur’s Code in 1928, he was more codifying existing beliefs than pushing hams forward.

    I do think Hiram Percy Maxim was influential, along with the other early leaders of the ARRL, but whether he rises to the level of “prophet” in this discussion is questionable.

  32. >Folks seem to be mixing up ‘technical paradigm shifter’ with this ‘prophet’ idea, and kind of missing the point.

    Yes, that is a problem with many of the names suggested.

  33. >(I don’t know enough about the distinctions between stage 4 and stage 5 to comment on which, though).

    At stage 4 (We’re Great!) you get creativity, tribal self-awareness, and a sense of mission. But stage 4 cultures are often focused on defeating some other tribe or institution regarded as an adversary – there is still some zero-sum behavior. At stage 5 (Life is great!), everything political and zero-sum goes away, the tribe is entirely operating from its own values.

    Logan thinks there aren’t any tribes that are stage 5 as a steady state, that it’s an occasional phenomenon that rises out of Stage 4 cultures and never lasts long. I’m not certain I’ve ever seen a Stage 5 tribe, but he’s right about the candidates I have in mind – they were all small groups of people from within tribes that were Stage 4, focused on particularly difficult challenges.

  34. Frederick Phillips Brooks, Jr

    Mythical Man Month, 1975. I don’t believe anyone has written about programming in more beautiful or transcendent terms.

  35. If we’re going by prophet as “somebody who expresses the deepest shared values of a tribe and invites people in it to change stage” then I submit that you probably can’t do much better than Alan Kay, whose entire career has been one big attempt to get society itself to utilize computers as a means of shifting stages, not just the computer community itself.

    His life’s work has been focused on how to use the computer not as a way to simulate the things we can already do, but to utilize the things that are new and unique about it to do things we previously couldn’t. Along the way this has resulted in spin-offs like the GUI interface, OO programming, and, if his latest effort pays off, an entire computing system in 20,000 LOC.

    Seriously take some time to watch his speech “The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet” at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2950949730059754521 and tell me that he isn’t being entirely prophetic when he speaks. The impact of his ideas is going to stay with us much longer than a cursory examination of them would otherwise indicate.

  36. I’m still thinking about plausible candidates for prophet status, but I think many of the names proposed miss the mark for the reason jsk mentioned: “Folks seem to be mixing up ‘technical paradigm shifter’ with this ‘prophet’ idea, and kind of missing the point.”

    Technical paradigm shifts (and the underlying technology) enabled and made possible hacker culture, but the keyword is “culture”, not “technical”. It’s quite possible to imagine the exact same technology and paradigm shifts existing without hacker culture ever arising.

    Any time people congregate in groups, there will be a group culture that will shape the nature of the interactions of the group. Group cultures are outgrowths of the personalities and interactions of the founders. The culture selects for compatibility. New folks are comfortable with the culture, get with the program, and act like everyone else, or they leave. So the *culture* persists, long after any of the original members are gone, and the group will continue to behave in fundamentally the same way.

    But culture is like the iceberg: 90% of it is invisible to those who inhabit it. We are no more consciously aware of the culture(s) we live in than a fish is of the water it swims in, because most of the cultural interactions are handled on an unconscious reflex level. We absorb the critical parts of culture by osmosis, beginning at pre-verbal ages. We don’t truly become aware of the unconscious aspects of culture till we are plunked down in one that does things differently than our own, and our reflex responses are wrong.

    I think a necessary qualification for “prophet” is someone who is aware of the underlying structure of their culture on a meta-level that most are not: someone who can explain us to ourselves, and make conscious and explicit the nature of things that we do without thinking.

    In that sense, ESR is not functioning as a technologist in that role. He is far more an anthropologist, analyzing hacker culture and explaining how it functions and why it functions that way. This is another (and larger) reason I don’t think RMS qualifies as a prophet. A lot of his actions strike me as the sort of unconscious reflex behavior typical of anyone who grew up in a culture and absorbed it by osmosis. He’s attempting to impose his own vision on hacker culture, but I’m not sure he really understands its nature.

    When we speak of hacker culture, we are not speaking of technology – we are speaking of interactions between *people* and the way those interactions are structured. Technology enables, empowers, and shapes those interactions, but it’s the people and structure that are critical. I’ll posit that the biggest requirement for “prophet” status isn’t technical skills, it’s *people* skills, and the ability to influence others to behave in certain manners because they want to. It requires an ability to understand other points of view, and put things in manners that people who hold other points of view can understand. It also requires an abilty to recognize that other points of view can be valid, and this is another area where I think RMS fails: I don’t think he’s capable of recognizing that any viewpoint other than his own *is* valid.

  37. Ham radio is an interesting case. I agree that it’s been Stage 4 for most of its existance, going back to at least the pre-WWII era.

    However, it did break up into two tribes at one point that exhibited Stage 3 behavior toward each other; “coders” and “no-coders”.

    When a movement began to reduce or eliminate Morse Code requirements for HF (high-frequency, long-distance-communication wavelengths), some hams championed the change as a way to get more technical people into ham radio without outdated, arbitrary Morse requirements that needed a certain type of ear/brain coordination. they also noted that commercial services had largely phased out CW.

    Other hams argued that Morse Code gets through when nothing else did, that it was a strong tradition among hams, and that it should never be abandoned. This group also pointed out that it is very easy to build simple radios that do CW, while it is significantly harder to design and build radios that handle voice.

    Ultimately the second group won and Morse licensing requirements disappeared. The acrimony was initially pretty intense, but has largely disappeared by now. However, code continues to be used by a subgroup of hams even without licensing requirements. The low-power QRP hardware-hackers are especially big users of code. (I belong to this latter group.)

    I think there are parallels here between the split between FSF/GPL and OSI/Open Source cultures. There was initially one community, then a sub-community was founded that drew a majority of support from within the tribe and appealed to other groups that wanted to join but couldn’t accept the previous rules, and gradually the two merged again into one larger culture with the new paradigm dominant but some groups still using the old one where it was appropriate for their goals.

  38. I’ll throw in another +1 for Alan Kay. I believe that historically the Smalltalk subculture has been quite avant garde, not just technically, but socially and Alan Kay has been the driving force behind most of that. For a lot of us, Alan Kay’s vision is distilled inspiration … outlining a sort of “promised land” that can be achieved by transcendence of the tribe.

    As for Knuth, I certainly like and admire him in both his personal and technical qualities. He is (in my opinion, at least) an indisputable high hero (of almost mythic stature) of the hacker culture, but a “prophet”…I would have to say no. In his company, I would probably also place Turing, von Neumann, etc. — all of which are heros in our collective mythos, but I’m not sure any of them qualify as prophets in the sense that they brought about a profound social evolution of some tribe.

  39. “But culture is like the iceberg: 90% of it is invisible to those who inhabit it. We are no more consciously aware of the culture(s) we live in than a fish is of the water it swims in, because most of the cultural interactions are handled on an unconscious reflex level. We absorb the critical parts of culture by osmosis, beginning at pre-verbal ages. We don’t truly become aware of the unconscious aspects of culture till we are plunked down in one that does things differently than our own, and our reflex responses are wrong.”

    But many of us belong to multiple cultures simultaneously. I don’t apply the same social rules at work that I do at a ham radio meeting. I don’t make the same jokes in a group at a church picnic that I would in a group of hackers. I belong to at least four tribes simultaneously (business suits, hackers, ham radio, amateur astronomers). They all have insider references that mark them apart from outsiders. I can shift effortlessly back and forth between them.

    On the other hand, I’ve noticed that those with Asperger’s or similar issues have trouble reading the signals for these shifts. For example, I once saw someone who belongs to both the business culture and the caving culture make a reference to the Wall Street Journal while camped on a field in the middle of nowhere, talking to a cattle farmer. (No, it didn’t play well.)

    I wonder if there is a tendency for shadow autists to belong to only one culture or to several closely-related cultures based on this difficulty?

  40. I can’t help but notice a parallel, in the rising through different stages, between hacker culture and the 2nd Amendment movement.

    In the early 1970s, gun rights activists were pretty thoroughly stage 2: their lives sucked and there was nothing they could do about it. (You still see some of this among some older gun owners who haven’t gotten the Heller memo). By the middle of that decade, they had moved into stage 3, recognizing that they were a legitimate movement with a far more plausible interpretation of American history than the gun control groups. (Perhaps Neal Knox was the stage 2/stage 3 prophet?)

    By the early 2000s they were moving into stage 4, with a belief that history was on their side. (I have no idea who the prophets were here; the 2A movement is very diffused due to the Internet nowadays, and it’s increasingly difficult to track memes). Now you even see a vague glimmer of stage 5: the picture of a worldwide right to keep and bear arms, in which each individual is essentially a sovereign nation.

    One thing I note about both the hacker and 2A movements: in both, their prophets are difficult to find, simply because their histories are not that well known. Prophets seem to arise in groups that are somewhat marginal. You don’t see prophets in General Motors, IBM, or the major political parties.

  41. For the category of, “Tried to be prophetic, but didn’t quite make it.”, I’d like to mention Ted Nelson (Computer Lib/Dream Machines, the Xanadu project). Like John Brown’s raid, he tried to get a movement going, but the time wasn’t quite right.

  42. >I think a necessary qualification for “prophet” is someone who is aware of the underlying structure of their culture on a meta-level that most are not: someone who can explain us to ourselves, and make conscious and explicit the nature of things that we do without thinking.

    That’s correct. That’s how I have observed myself being effective as a prophet.

    >In that sense, ESR is not functioning as a technologist in that role. He is far more an anthropologist, analyzing hacker culture and explaining how it functions and why it functions that way.

    That is also correct. And it’s why talking about how this or that visionary has changed computing technology has missed the point. Prophets under Logan’s meaning of the term are not people who change technology, they’re people who change the expressed behavior of tribes.

    >This is another (and larger) reason I don’t think RMS qualifies as a prophet. A lot of his actions strike me as the sort of unconscious reflex behavior typical of anyone who grew up in a culture and absorbed it by osmosis. He’s attempting to impose his own vision on hacker culture, but I’m not sure he really understands its nature.

    On this, however, I disagree. For multiple reasons.

    I suppose it might theoretically be possible to be a prophet for a culture without first absorbing it by osmosis, but “unconscious reflex behavior” is where every prophet I’ve seen starts from. And normally remains in most of the time – when I function day to day as a hacker I’m seldom consciously reflecting on the reasons for my behavior. The fact that RMS often behaves as though he’s running on unconscious reflex doesn’t disqualify him any more than it does me. The right question, in both cases, is whether we display and act on awareness of the meta-level of our culture when that is required and appropriate.

    As for RMS not understanding hacker culture…sorry but that’s plain ridiculous. He’s produced or exteriorized a ridiculously large percentage of our shared cultural capital, and no I am not talking about the GPL or the FSF’s propaganda. Hacker culture is him to a greater degree than I think any other single person can claim, though it wouldn’t be crazy to argue that post-1997 I come close.

    RMS’s problem is that his desire to impose a personal vision interferes with his understanding. If I had the same sort of problem I would…oh, I dunno, insist that every hacker must read Heinlein and carry a gun. I know better than that; I can tell the difference between what’s individually me and what’s shared hacker-nature. RMS has more trouble with that distinction. and sometimes deliberately obliterates it.

    He certainly is a prophet, though. Flawed and in some ways failed, but genuine.

  43. >For the category of, “Tried to be prophetic, but didn’t quite make it.”, I’d like to mention Ted Nelson (Computer Lib/Dream Machines, the Xanadu project). Like John Brown’s raid, he tried to get a movement going, but the time wasn’t quite right.

    Full disclosure: I know Ted, one of the Xanadu architects (Mark Miller) nearly recruited me on to the project in 1980, and I maintained occasional contact with some of its principals for 30 years afterwards. When they open-sourced the Xanadu code they asked me to do the formal announcement. I’m not quite a detached observer in this case.

    That’s…broadly correct, I think. Part of it was bad timing, part of it was normal execution mistakes exacerbated by several kinds of management failure. Part of it was that Ted never let go of the role of auteur – he wasn’t egoless enough to let the project succeed. (Yes, I have told him this. He didn’t take it well.)

    Good contrast with RMS here. Ted himself was not a hacker, but an artist/philosopher/visionary with a handful of good ideas that have inspired hackers. He can barely write a line of code himself; one of the reasons for his rocky and difficult career is that he has always had to recruit proxies to do the implementation for him.

    RMS has been a partially failed prophet who at least was in and of the culture he was attempting to transform, and retained a lot of influence on it. Ted has been closer to complete failure as a prophet – sadly, because his original vision was brilliant and audacious. If he’d been more of a hacker and less the controlling auteur we might have gotten the Web twenty years sooner.

  44. I nominate Tony Hoare for his inspiration among the “formal tribe”

    I attended a lecture in the mid-2000s where he spoke about his “grand challenge” of a formally verifying compiler….the technical aspect was fascinating, but it was his vision of the future possibilities that was inspiring. Definitely a stage3 to stage 4 prophet.

  45. >Folks seem to be mixing up ‘technical paradigm shifter’ with this ‘prophet’ idea, and kind of missing the point.

    Would it help if someone pointed at significant shifts in the various subcultures, kind of try to identify notable cultural transitions (rather than technical paradigm shifts) ? Then maybe it gets easier to track down who, in that era that that transition occurred, expressed the thoughts that others didn’t know how to think or made explicit what others only had at the back of their heads … and thus played a major role in the transition actually taking place ?

    just a thought, I don’t have any answers …

  46. @jsk Lol…I knew someone here would reject Jobs and Gates.

    The fact is I WAS there and certainly Jobs socially engineered apple hackerdom and aware of it at a metalevel.

    You guys are too focused on unix hackers and completely ignore the very vibrant hacker culture (even before 1982) in the computer users groups across the country. Where C wasn’t the lingua franca but rather microprocessor assembly (8080, 6800, 6502, Z80, etc) and BASIC. I was coding then and remember when we would grab the latest Byte or Dr Dobbs or whatever and type in the programs from the listing in the magazines. Then reuse and remix code from prior programs to create new ones. Then share them with each other either either in person, tape or later on BBS’s.

    The apple hacker community (since the 80s) is very different than that of other hacker communities and this rests fundamentally on Jobs’ “teachings” where design and usability is a intrinsic element in order to write software “for the rest of us”. A hacker tribe where “excellence is expected” and that “excellence” included design and fit and finish of the final product. Something distinctly missing from the unix hacker tribe.

    And he certainly attempted to move past the Stage 4 into the Stage 5 level both internally at Apple and at large within the entire Apple “religion” when he deliberately stated: “For Apple to win, Microsoft doesn’t have to lose.” Not his most successful attempt to modify tribe behavior but one I believe to have been an honest attempt.

    As for Gates, his followers were the far larger community of MS-DOS and windows hackers. His mantras were different and far more commercial (witness the open letter to hobbyists). But his influence on PC hackers is equally unmistakable…software developers should be paid for their work. Leading toward a hacker culture that produced a large volume of shareware. And Gates certainly was a coder and a very good one at that.

  47. I work at a small (< 30 employees) company making medical software. I'd say we're at Stage 4. Being in the medical field helps – our work has intrinsic value and we all have an interest in making it great.

    I've also worked at three Fortune 50 companies, and some parts of them are Stage 2 at best. I think the size of the company matters a lot. It's hard to change the ship's direction when it's huge.

    I believe that FOSS is at Stage 4 because the FOSS community is a meritocracy, as opposed to corporations where politicking is the key to advancement. When you're competing with your co-workers for limited resources (raises and promotions) it's inherently a Stage 3 situation.

  48. @kn

    Jobs: cultural shift from where normal users are considered lusers (losers) and an annoyance in the unix and the microcomputer guru/wizard/hacker tribal culture to that where HCI and elegance of design is a critical element of software for a more humane interface (although that specific phrasing is Raskin’s).

    Gates: cultural shift from where software should be freely shared and even pirated from the original microcomputer hacker tribal culture to a windows hacker tribal culture where software developers should EXPECT to be paid for their efforts. The obvious antithesis of RMS.

  49. Nigel, if you want to pull some more thread on Jobs, you might tease out something valid. Please do. It still sounds though, and especially with Gates, that you’re missing the point.

    Jobs and Gates were Leaders in their areas, sure. But did they specifically codify existing cultural assumptions, and in so doing galvanize their respective cultures, rather than dictate new ones? That’s a Really Important distinction.

  50. Other candidates I would name:

    Doug Humphries – CMM – massive change in culture away from hacking to engineering.

    James Bach – Good Enough Software – the competing cultural prophet to Humphries

    Tom DeMarco – Peopleware – an attempted cultural shift away from cubical land programming.

    Bayy Boehm and Capers Jones – software metrics cultural shift (from two different directions…one from estimation and the other from metrics collection and quality assessment).

    But these are mid80′s so contemporary or after RMS.

  51. @jsk apple and window hacker tribes did not spring forth fully formed from their brows. They were the migration of existing microcomputer hacker tribes into new cultural norms.

    I get the impression that you don’t even believe in the existence of distinct apple and window hacker tribes.

    In what way did Jobs NOT galvanize and codify the importance of UI design and elegance in the apple tribe? If not Jobs then who did so? And in what way is this emphasis on HCI design NOT a cultural assumption that pre-existed at Xerox PARC, Stanford and elsewhere?

  52. Cathy: As one of the ones in the thick of the no-code war on Usenet (that’s how I first met Bruce Perens, long before he ever heard of Linux), I’m not sure that that signifies a shift from stage 4 back to stage 3. It represented a difference of opinion, often a heated one, in the best way to sustain and grow the culture, but it was not really more than that. It certainly was not anything like an attempt to defeat some *other* culture. In that sense, I’m not sure ham radio has ever *had* another external tribe to work in opposition to; certainly not since WWII, and probably not since the advent of radio regulation in the early 1910s.

  53. Jobs and Gates were Leaders in their areas, sure. But did they specifically codify existing cultural assumptions, and in so doing galvanize their respective cultures, rather than dictate new ones? That’s a Really Important distinction.

    Yes. Back in the day the Macintosh was considered THE ultimate hacker’s personal machine, largely because hackers recognized that future computers would look very Mac-like. Those days returned with Steve Jobs when he was brought back to Apple. Hackers who are not equipped with a MacBook are becoming rarer and rarer.

    Jobs’s vision — of a more beautiful, elegant, and humane computing environment — had an audience of all hackers, not just the “Apple cult”. It was one of the most transformative things ever to happen to the computing community.

  54. @Jeff Read: “Hackers who are not equipped with a MacBook are becoming rarer and rarer.”

    Evidence? Sources? I flat out don’t believe this.

  55. Re Model Railroad Club and MIT AI Lab, 1959-1969, here are some relevant oral histories from the Computer History Museum:

    Steve Russell
    http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/accession/102746453

    Alan Kotok
    http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/accession/102657916

    Richard Greenblatt
    http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/accession/102657935

    And Fernando Corbató:
    http://www.computerhistory.org/collections/accession/102658041

    You mentioned Licklider; Bob Taylor, who funded the ARPAnet project and staffed the Computer Science Lab at Xerox PARC, has always considered Licklider to be his mentor.

    Re the early Unix tradition, Doug McIlroy definitely qualifies as the guru if not the prophet.

  56. >Yes. Back in the day the Macintosh was considered THE ultimate hacker’s personal machine, largely because hackers recognized that future computers would look very Mac-like.

    Er. No. I was there, and this is nonsense.

    We actually thought the computers of the future would look a lot like Sun workstations. And weren’t far wrong.

  57. >Evidence? Sources? I flat out don’t believe this.

    Good, because it isn’t true. The most common marques I see are ThinkPads. (I have an X220.)

  58. @esr heh, not many sun workstations look like iPhones, iPads or laptops.

    I dunno if I’d agree that Macs were THE primo hacker machines of the day but I can say that NeXT pizza boxes certainly were. The cubes were a little slow with their mo drive.

    Macs had a strong following though because of that vision and there were non programmer hackers on the Mac that could exist in few other places (HyperCard comes to mind).

    Coding wise it wasn’t a nice environment…co-op multitasking is inelegant and buggy.

  59. I don’t know if you could call him a hacker in todays understanding of the word, but I’d propose Ben Franklin as a definite profit, and his attitudes toward self learning, science, experimenting with religious ideas, invention and politics all seriously resemble modern hackers’ attitudes.

    He’s among my personal roll models for these reasons.

  60. I see a lot of MacBooks among coders because unix > windows and osx has better software than linux (photoshop, Lightroom, office, etc). Plus a lot of us are tired of linux.

    Depends on your circles. If you only hang out with open source hackers then yah, lower MacBook penetration and far higher Linux laptops.

    That’s probably not the norm in most other coder tribes. There it’s probably 40% windows 50% Mac* and 10% Linux based on casual observation.

    * with some signifcant percentage either VM’d or bootcamped into windows

  61. >The fact is I WAS there and certainly Jobs socially engineered apple hackerdom and aware of it at a metalevel.

    That is true, yes. I wasn’t in the Apple crowd at the time, but I was well positioned to observe it. Jobs was a pretty obvious Stage 4 prophet.

    >You guys are too focused on unix hackers and completely ignore the very vibrant hacker culture (even before 1982) in the computer users groups across the country.

    I was part of that culture between about 1979 and 1985, which is why I can say ignoring it is pretty justified at this point. Quick, name any surviving major artifact from that culture still in use! Oh, wait, you can’t – their software mostly died when the proprietary platforms it relied on were EOLed. Including some of my own early code, dammit. Most of what little has survived is primitive freeware games, in a couple of major cases (such as Super Star Trek) only because I personally forward-ported them.

    It is not a coincidence that today’s hacker culture has an ethos of open source. Closed-source software has in general been too fragile, tied to its original environments, and too hedged about with legal risks to survive; the few partial exceptions such as arcade ROMs only point up the problem. Without source access and the option to forward-port, you just can’t maintain a tradition longer than one technology turnover.

    >And [Jobs] certainly attempted to move past the Stage 4 into the Stage 5 level

    That is also true, and I think typical for Stage 4 prophets; the same could be said of RMS or myself.

    >Gates certainly was a coder and a very good one at that.

    Not a prophet, though. I see no evidence either now or in the past of behavior above Stage 3 around Gates.

  62. Gates, a good coder?…meh. Sorry. I don’t know anyone who’s looked at his code and thought it was worth much. He’s the only guy I know of who ever used the 8080′s parity flag after an arithmetic operation – which is why the original Microsoft BASIC wouldn’t run on the Z-80.

  63. EAA – another tribe or set of tribes operating in a very creative and cooperative manner. Burt Rutan is only one of many prophets.

  64. I was part of that culture between about 1979 and 1985, which is why I can say ignoring it is pretty justified at this point. Quick, name any surviving major artifact from that culture still in use! Oh, wait, you can’t – their software mostly died when the proprietary platforms it relied on were EOLed. Including some of my own early code, dammit.

    I can see how this litmus test would be appealing to you but how much code from Xerox PARC is still in use? I would hazard zero. Concepts? Yes. Code? No.

    For the computer clubs I would say that the concept of shareware came from there and a widely used surviving artifact is the ZIP format.

    PKZIP is still around although not as widely used as before when it was the zip engine underneath WinZip. SecureZip probably doesn’t actually any code from the original PKZIP written my Phil Katz but is surviving artifact of the 80s shareware period with a traceable legacy to the original PKZIP. WinZip is another with directly traceable shareware roots but also certainly with no original code remaining.

    The Association of Shareware Professionals is a large trade group that was formed in the late 80s and still exists today. Download.com, Tucows, etc are the modern versions of the old bbs shareware nodes.

    Some widely known game companies started as shareware companies. Like Id and Epic.

    I think that the computer club hacking culture was largely subsumed by the internet hacker culture and they were some of the first non-academic participants (i.e. came from fidonet, AOL, compuserve and not from arpanet). Activity is no longer clustered around club meetings or magazines but tech forums. Places like StackOverflow, CodeRanch, etc. I don’t associate these with the open source tribe because not all the participants are open source proponents and while the code is shared the emphasis is on coders helping coders regardless of whether the end product is open or closed. Code fragments and not code projects.

    There are a large number of shareware/indie developers that are not part of the open source tribe. I would hazard that most modern app developers (Android or iOS) would have been shareware devs vs opensource devs back in the day and belonged to that computer club/shareware tribe.

    I also still see gatherings like CMAP (http://www.cmap-online.org/) and other coding focused clubs still around. Face to face is still important and it still happens. Just less critical to the existence of the tribe.

    As far as Gates goes, I guess it depends on whether or not you feel that the “Open Letter” was a clarion call for shareware developers gaining legitimacy and self awareness as a tribe. If RMS was the prophet for “free” software as a tribe among independent developers then it’s hard to argue that Gates wasn’t the equivalent for the shareware tribe among that same pool of hackers.

    I would argue that “free as in beer” source was more prevalent than “I want money” source in that period and there was more social stigma against “I want money” code among hackers at the time.

    I guess I’m feeling that if the FSF tribe can be considered stage 4 then the proprietary tribe is at the same stage.

  65. That should probably read “even ignoring all his other code”.

    He slung a lot of code those early years but that example shows he had very strong algorithmic chops as well.

  66. > Quick, name any surviving major artifact from that culture still in use!

    Microsoft Word.

    But why is the number of surviving artifacts a figure of merit? Those that survived did so by changing so drastically that they shouldn’t count, and those that didn’t change deserved to die the death. Some of us consider the deep and ruthless depreciation of the command line and all its works to be a great good thing.

  67. “even ignoring all his other code”

    Oh, yeah, DONKEY.BAS. Man, classic.

    Yes, I know he wrote a lot of other code, but most of it was not of tremendously high quality. Fair-to-middlin at best. Microsoft’s assemblers and compilers of the day were notoriously bad.

  68. Couldn’t help but notice: Dave Logan’s model corresponds roughly with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the “Life sucks” level individuals are concerned with the basics of survival: food, shelter, security, etc. At the “My life sucks” they are concerned with acceptance; at the “I’m great and you’re not” level they are concerned with esteem; at the “we’re great level” they’re concerned with self-actualization; and at “life is great” they have achieved some measure of self-actualization and are moving towards Frankl’s hypothesized additional layer to the pyramid, “self-transcendence”.

    The problem with the hierarchy is that each level of needs is dependent on securing all the needs below it. Which becomes problematical in the coming resource crash, after which I suspect a lot of tribes will be reset to “life sucks” level.

    Also, some tribal cohesion appears to be maintained by a differential in operational levels among their members, much as an engine keeps running because of a temperature differential. Consider a feudal kingdom: most of its members are at “life sucks”, but the king and nobles are at least at “I’m great and you’re not” (probably not much, if any, higher than that). Tribal cohesion is maintained by the implicit promise of “Swear loyalty to me and I will make your life suck less (contrariwise, rebel against me and I will make it suck much, much more).”

    Offtopic, but Stephen Hawking is pushing for the construction of Mycroft Holmes.

  69. @jeff

    /shrug

    I gave an example where his algorithm was one of the fastest for 30 years. That’s not shabby.

    As far as I’m concerned his best coding effort was writing the class scheduler at his high school to put him in the same classes as the pretty girls…

    And meh…I always thought that XEmacs > Emacs so…

  70. @esr: Is your prophet search limited only to those operating from within the culture?

    A quick (and silly) example; the writer of the movie Revenge Of The Nerds was hugely influential in defining the cultural parameters (vs the technical) of the computer (and by extension software) culture. While that result was almost certainly unintentional, is that sort of strictly cultural defining influence part of what you’re after?

    It strikes me that identifying the oppositional (or merely derogatory) cultural influences might prove helpful in identifying the people who as a result lead your culture (as opposed to your culture’s technology) to the station it graces today.

  71. Two notes:

    1a) A very high percentage of ietf-ers run macbooks nowadays. I don’t know what the percentage is, but I’d say it’s well over 30%. Windows on much of the rest, linux on relatively few. The ietf-ers having handed control of their core OSes to their vendors, are imprisoned by them – I am besiged by requests to get things like cerowrt running in a VM, where the fixes there-in need to be running on the bare metal, first. Almost everything we’ve been dealing with on the bufferbloat front needs to be fixed on the bare metal first, which might explain why getting it fixed has been so hard – not enough hackers that can work on the bare metal.

    1b) Similarly, developers that have moved to a macbook (or windows) generally lack the tools in order to do even the simplest compile, and assembling a useful gnu stack to run natively is very painful despite the availability of the ports systems, particularly on complex software.

    That said, the macbook experience IS tempting, and if I didn’t work on linux 24×7 I might have switched long ago. Lesson 1b however, I face every day with associates that are crippled in their ability to hack by their OS choice (and they, beg me for Linux VMs, but even with a VM, the workflow experience is very different from their day-to-day, so they are less productive, even with a VM)

    2) My immediate reaction to some of the agile stages was that it = maslows pyramid. I’ve also thought for a very long time that as a (biased) male psychologist he got sex (level 1) and intimacy (level 3) reversed in the case of women.

  72. Dave Taht,

    The pyramid itself reeks of Maslow’s cultural biases; importantly, collectivist societies rank social approval above individual fulfillment. Collectivism is the default state of man; “ubuntu” ain’t just a nice Linux distro! Nevertheless it is useful as an approximator of the Western (Specifically American) values ladder. As for the basic need of sex, swap it with “reproduction” and you’d be accurate for both men and women; anyone who believes otherwise hasn’t been acquainted with very many women in their early twenties, when they start thinking earnestly about babies.

  73. >I can see how this litmus test would be appealing to you but how much code from Xerox PARC is still in use? I would hazard zero.

    And you’d be wrong. The Ingalls/Tesler/Sproull BitBlt implementation, right at the heart of the Alto OS, was forward-ported from Mesa into both X and Microsoft Windows.

    >For the computer clubs I would say that the concept of shareware came from there and a widely used surviving artifact is the ZIP format.

    That’s pretty weak sauce, there – especially given that the ZIP format wasn’t created until 1989, 4 years after the end of the period I called out.

    >I would hazard that most modern app developers (Android or iOS) would have been shareware devs vs opensource devs back in the day and belonged to that computer club/shareware tribe.

    A handwaving claim that would be irrelevant to my asswertion even if I accepted it as true.

    >As far as Gates goes, I guess it depends on whether or not you feel that the “Open Letter” was a clarion call for shareware developers gaining legitimacy and self awareness as a tribe.

    That’s a ridiculous over-interpretation. Gates didn’t have to claim legitimacy for payware – payware had already been the dominant mode of software production since IBM’s unbundling move in 1969 (you can be forgiven for not knowing this, however, because the FSF later created a myth to the contrary that got an inexplicably large amount of traction). Furthermore, the letter never addresses shareware or exhorts shareware authors as a tribe to go commercial.

    >I guess I’m feeling that if the FSF tribe can be considered stage 4 then the proprietary tribe is at the same stage.

    But there isn’t any “proprietary tribe” to be at any stage, and never has been. You can’t just throw all proprietary-software developers in a bag and call them a tribe – there’s no cultural commons or shared values to hold them together. Go a head, try to refute me – showme their equivalent of joke RFCs, or the Jargon File.

  74. >@esr: Is your prophet search limited only to those operating from within the culture?

    For this discussion, yes. Though the more general question is interesting.

  75. >I can see how this litmus test would be appealing to you but how much code from Xerox PARC is still in use? I would hazard zero.

    And you’d be wrong. The Ingalls/Tesler/Sproull BitBlt implementation, right at the heart of the Alto OS, was forward-ported from Mesa into both X and Microsoft Windows.

    Squeak is a direct descendant of PARC Smalltalk and still contains much of the same code. When I first played with it, round about 2000 or so, it still had the MVC GUI stack from Smalltalk-80.

  76. >>I can see how this litmus test would be appealing to you but how much code from Xerox PARC is still in use? I would hazard zero.

    >And you’d be wrong. The Ingalls/Tesler/Sproull BitBlt implementation, right at the heart of the Alto OS, was forward-ported from Mesa into both X and Microsoft Windows.

    And the Bravo WYSIWYG word processor was effectively forward-ported into Microsoft Word.

  77. I need to think about EAA and homebuilt aviation before commenting on its culture, but a first approximation for its prophet in the cultural sense Eric is talking about would have Paul Poberezny, EAA’s founder, as its prophet, with the possible addition of Dick Van Grundsven of Van’s Aircraft (the guy behind the RV series of homebuilts) as expanding the ethos firmly into the kitplane space. (There’s a reason his customers are said to belong to Van’s Air Force.)

    Nigel, you’re full of prunes about Bill Gates’s letter. He was not leading the tribe from within. He was complaining at it from without. Hardly what Eric is thinking of.

  78. “But there isn’t any “proprietary tribe” to be at any stage, and never has been. You can’t just throw all proprietary-software developers in a bag and call them a tribe– there’s no cultural commons or shared values to hold them together. Go ahead, try to refute me – show me their equivalent of joke RFCs, or the Jargon File.”

    It used to be Datamation magazine.

  79. Given that you’ve been nice enough to accept Jobs I shan’t lobby for Gates. :)

    And you’d be wrong. The Ingalls/Tesler/Sproull BitBlt implementation, right at the heart of the Alto OS, was forward-ported from Mesa into both X and Microsoft Windows.

    Learn something new every day.

    That’s pretty weak sauce, there – especially given that the ZIP format wasn’t created until 1989, 4 years after the end of the period I called out.

    There are few other examples I’m afraid as most of the code were user apps vs system level code like blitting. The nature of shareware user apps is much like Android and iOS apps today….games, utilities, and the like. In 20 years few of these will survive in any form other than a few games like Angry Birds.

    But I disagree that you can discount these hackers as unimportant any more than you can discount indie mobile app devs as unimportant. They filled in a lot of gaps left unaddressed by traditional software companies and many evolved into being big names as I mentioned (Id, etc).

    But there isn’t any “proprietary tribe” to be at any stage, and never has been.

    What tribe would you suggest they be in? The individual platform tribes? The largest was the windows one. Whom was the prophet for that tribe?

  80. What tribe would you suggest they be in? The individual platform tribes? The largest was the windows one. Whom was the prophet for that tribe?

    Outside the walls of whatever company they were a part of, there was nothing cohesive enough to form a tribe out of — except hacker culture. There are roughly as many different flavors of Windows developer culture, for instance, as there are companies that develop on Windows.

  81. Indeed; proprietary firms/developers rarely (if ever?) make any kind of cooperative bonds that can really describe them as being a whole culture. Their interaction is usually limited to “I’ve bought this software/library from you, now I am entitled to technical support”.

  82. @jeff I disagree about the windows developer culture in as much as the various windows dev users groups are coordinated to some degree by MS. There are Microsoft MVPs in most of these groups…not employees, just developers recognized as exceptional.

    Just google “microsoft developer users group” and you’ll see active groups across the country that have regular meetups. Then there are ms dev conferences where many MVPs and regular devs attend. The Build 2012 conference (replaced PDC) sold out in an hour…which is actually twice as fast as WWDC 2012 (2 hours)…

    It’s been a few years since I’ve done any MS development work but I liked doing C#. When I have time again I’ll give mono a look see.

  83. @mike Given that the majority of us developers actually do make a living writing code as opposed to give it away for free then almost all devs that contribute to stack overflow, the code project and other technical forums are part of that proprietary group and there to help each other out without a service contract…

  84. >Given that you’ve been nice enough to accept Jobs I shan’t lobby for Gates. :)

    Nice has nothing to do with it. I think Jobs’s vision of computers as locked-down prisons with beautiful window treatments is ultimately bad for everybody, but there is no denying he was a prophet of sleek industrial design.

  85. Nigel on Thursday, September 20 2012 at 5:51 pm said:
    > A hacker tribe where “excellence is expected” and that “excellence” included design and fit and finish of the final product. Something distinctly missing from the unix hacker tribe.

    What he said:

    jsk on Thursday, September 20 2012 at 6:06 pm said:
    > Jobs and Gates were Leaders in their areas, sure. But did they specifically codify existing cultural assumptions, and in so doing galvanize their respective cultures, rather than dictate new ones?

    I did not follow Jobs that closely, but, stung by the excellence of Job’s UI, Gates inspired windows programmers to ditch the “users are lusers attitude”. He did not dictate it – could not, since he, unlike Jobs, relied heavily on the work of programmers that were not Microsoft employees.

  86. > So, thinking about this in the context of the hacker culture, the pre-RMS name that jumps out at me is Larry Wall, the inventor of Perl and the patch utility, in the early 1980s

    Larry Wall released patch in May, 1985. Prior to that he’d written ‘rn’, but if you ever looked at the insides of ‘rn’ (especially the original version you wouldn’t be able to hold your lunch down.

    > But that may only be because in the early 1980s I was a relative n00b and possibly not clued in enough to notice other prophets operating at more social distance from me.

    s/possibly//

    Tom just called it (he was obviously around). Nigel has some good stuff too.

  87. >What about Mark Crispin?

    You tell me. Yes, I’m aware of his work, and his joke RFC, and he was one of the Jargon File co-editors before me. But I don’t see prophecy there, certainly not at the level RMS was doing it at around the same time. Explain?

  88. >You tell me. Yes, I’m aware of his work, and his joke RFC, and he was one of the Jargon File co-editors before me. But I don’t see prophecy there, certainly not at the level RMS was doing it at around the same time. Explain?

    His original joke RFC (to my knowledge his was the first) pre-dates RMS’ major prophetic contributions. Certainly RMS’s influence and importance quickly eclipsed Crispin’s, and I agree that he was not one of the *major* prophets, but he may have been one of the earliest.

    His joke RFC was one of the earliest expressions of the shared values of the tribe, and I think that qualifies as prophecy, even if it was on a small scale.

  89. >His joke RFC was one of the earliest expressions of the shared values of the tribe, and I think that qualifies as prophecy, even if it was on a small scale.

    This is a reasonable argument. I fully concur with “was one of the earliest expressions of the shared values of the tribe”.

    I hesitate to describe Crispin as a prophet, however, because I’ve actually had to try to cooperate with him in the past. I’d prefer not to go into the gory details in a public forum, but let’s just say that he can make the likes of RMS or Dan Bernstein look like paragons of amiable sociability and reasonableness. This damages his ability to inspire and motivate people around him in ways that a prophet has to do.

  90. > This damages his ability to inspire and motivate people around him in ways that a prophet has to do.

    Theo de Raadt has this problem, too.

  91. Prophets often are annoying. After all John the Baptist lost his head by pissing off Herod and Herodias. Both RMS and Jobs are/were.

  92. >Prophets often are annoying. After all John the Baptist lost his head by pissing off Herod and Herodias. Both RMS and Jobs are/were.

    Yeah, but there’s a difference between annoying-but-functional and so antagonistic that you even can’t keep allies around. Jobs stayed on the functional side of that line, and so does RMS (if only barely). Crispin, when I dealt with him, crossed it regularly. I have second-hand evidence that this has been a pattern in his life.

  93. @Cathy: “But many of us belong to multiple cultures simultaneously. I don’t apply the same social rules at work that I do at a ham radio meeting. I don’t make the same jokes in a group at a church picnic that I would in a group of hackers. I belong to at least four tribes simultaneously (business suits, hackers, ham radio, amateur astronomers). They all have insider references that mark them apart from outsiders. I can shift effortlessly back and forth between them.”

    So am I and so do I. We all all to some extent chameleons, adapting to our environment. I am one sort of person at the office, another at a social event with acquaintances, another with family or close friends…but they are all me. I am simply exposing a different set of facets of the particular gem that I am.

    But how much of what you or I do when we phase shift between cultures is consciously considered, and how much is automatic, operating on a reflex level? And those different cultures are effectively subsets of a deeper one in which the others exist, and have common underpinnings. When I speak about plucking soneone out of our culture and plunking them down in a different one, I mean a more radical change, like taking someone from North America and plunking them down in the Middle East. Language will likely be the *least* of the differences.

    “On the other hand, I’ve noticed that those with Asperger’s or similar issues have trouble reading the signals for these shifts. For example, I once saw someone who belongs to both the business culture and the caving culture make a reference to the Wall Street Journal while camped on a field in the middle of nowhere, talking to a cattle farmer. (No, it didn’t play well.)

    I wonder if there is a tendency for shadow autists to belong to only one culture or to several closely-related cultures based on this difficulty?”

    As for the spectrum from Asbergers to Autism, it’s a little more complicated than that. Consider being in a group of people meeting in person. Someone in the group makes a statement. Due to the multivalued nature of English, if you just read the words, they might be a thigh-slapping joke, a deadly insult, or a simple statement of fact. How do you know which context is intended? You know through *non-verbal* cues. You see facial expressions, hear tone of voice, and observe body language. (And this too is handled by reflex.) Someone with Asbergers *doesn’t* perceive those cues. They may observe them, but can’t correlate them with what is being said to provide the context for what they hear.

    I’m a science fiction fan, and help plan and run literary SF conventions as a hobby. A *lot* of people who attend such functions are “on the spectrum”, and a lot of problems that may arise at such functions stem from it and the communications difficulties that result.

    And that brings up a related point. Organizational cultures are outgrowths of the personalities and interactions of the founders. *The culture selects for compatibility*. New people come in, are comfortable with the culture, get with the program, and act like everyone else, or they leave. So you can have a 100% turnover in the membership of an organization, but the organization will still behave in fundamentally the same manner. It’s why cultures can change with glacial slowness.

    The earliest form of science fiction fandom expressed itself in writing. The pulp science fiction magazines of the ’20s and ’30s ran Letters to the Editor columns where readers could comment on stories, and published the full name and address of those whose letters they printed, so SF fans became aware of each other, and began communicating through amateur magazines they circulated to other fans whose addresses they had gathered. Hugo Gernsbach helped the process along with the Science Fiction League that he organized and promoted in the pages of his Amazing Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories magazines. The earliest SF convention took place in 1936, when a group of NYC fans took the train to Philadelphia to meet with Phila. fans they knew through correspondence. (I knew several of those involved in that meeting, decades back.)

    Those early SF fans were today’s geeks and nerds, poorly socialized and not fitting in well elsewhere. SF provided a shared interest they could form a community around, and communicating through writing allowed them to be part of a community without the issues inherent in face-to-face contact. SF fandom because of that origin was accepting and tolerant of socially awkward behavior, because a lots of the early fans needed it. The practice continues to this day, which partially explains the number of “on the spectrum” people who participate. It’s a place where they *can* participate with less of the problems their behavior might cause elsewhere. (And that strength of SF fandom is also a weakness, beause it means that anti-social behavior is often tolerated far longer than it should be, and things that might have been handled by a quiet talk early on become large problems for an entire group. I am a former member of a fan group that is currently on life-support precisely because of such issues, and is no longer a functioning social group.)

  94. “Oh, I think “proprietary software” and “software hoarding” qualified as adversaries.”

    Holy crap, that’s pretty close to “software kulaks” language. No wonder the dude had struggles selling it.

  95. Nigel, the difference is in who gets pissed off. John the Baptist pissed off those outside his tribe. Mark Crispin pisses off those within it. That works very much against the kind of credibility a prophet in this sense needs: if he doesn’t have it, then the reaction to his attempt to codify and drive forward the culture is “yeah, and why should we listen to you?”.

  96. >Mark Crispin pisses off those within it.

    In fairness to Nigel’s argument, I have to point out that RMS does that too. But differences in degree sometimes matter, and this is one of them.

  97. @Paul McJones: Bravo != Microsoft Word. Bravo was modal (think “Vim.”) editor. Charles Simonyi, who wrote the original version of MIcrosoft Word, wrote a modeless version called BravoX, but Word and BravoX never shared any code; BravoX was written in a language called “Butte,” while Word was was, well, not. I won’t go into the technical nitty gritty, except to say that the only things BravoX and Word have in common is that they are A) WYSIWYG, B) are (or were) abstracted from the underlying OS by a “compatibility layer” and C) were both initiated by same man. And current versions of Word derive from Word 6, which was basically a complete rewrite — the last version of of Word based on the old “multitool” compatibility layer word Word for Windows 1.1. Don’t be ignorant.

    @Nancy Lebovitz — arguably I would say that Butler Lampson had more influence on early hacker culture than Alan Kay, due to his involvement with Project Genie.

  98. How about Jerry Pournelle?

    His Byte columns inspired quite a number of memes and terminology that have lived on. His insistence that systems should be hackable but fully functional and useful without any hacking was (is?) a nice voice of reason that seems even more relevant today.

  99. I don’t have any opinion about whether Alan Kay is a prophet– I don’t have the historical background.

    I listened to part of his speech, found it quite interesting, and posted the link to the transcript as a minor public service.

  100. How about Martin Gardner? His first book, In the name of Science (1957), is mostly a put-down of the cranks and quacks who give science a bad name. But it also works as a “we’re great” manifesto within your framework. Afterwards, his quarter-century of columns in Scientific American removed mathematics from the domain of stuffy professors and re-framed its pursuit as a puzzle-solving sport that cool people play for recreation (an important hacker attitude).

  101. esr > Quick, name any surviving major artifact from that culture still in use!

    Are you telling me that Pong wasn’t major? Shame on you! :)

  102. @Jay Maynard:
    “I need to think about EAA and homebuilt aviation before commenting on its culture, but a first approximation for its prophet in the cultural sense Eric is talking about would have Paul Poberezny, EAA’s founder, as its prophet.”

    Absolutely, Jay. Paul is a fantastic example of a prophet from another subculture, and one who (as far as I am aware) lacked the ego and irritating behaviors seen from some of the other people described on this thread.

  103. “Organizational cultures are outgrowths of the personalities and interactions of the founders. *The culture selects for compatibility*.”

    Every culture selects for compatibility. In a Western-type “superculture” consisting of many subcultures, people get to pick and choose and can usually find some kind of subculture to which they can comfortably belong.

    In cases where the subculture involves earning a living, this is harder. Even if you aren’t compatible. you have to work somewhere, somehow. Depending on your skill set, your choices may be limited. ESR has written before about the really awful culture of death marches, mistreatment of comp time, etc. and he suggests that more developers shouldn’t put up with it, but there just aren’t enough places for developers to work that don’t have such practices in place. People with broader skill sets, like ESR and myself, have options that an excellent programmer with no other talents may not have.

    Hardest of all is incompatibility with the superculture (i.e., Western civilization, Islamic civilization, etc.) If you firmly believe that those who disagree with you on religion should be severely punished, tortured, killed, etc., then you aren’t going to find any place in Western civ where you fit. If you are openly gay, you are going to struggle to find a place in Islamic civ where you fit. And changing the superculture in which you live typically requires emigrating, which is not a trivial thing to do.

    I suspect a lot of Western libertarians would be happy to emigrate to a nation with a libertarian-dominant superculture if such a thing existed somewhere, but at present it does not and that doesn’t appear likely to change soon.

  104. Actually, Cathy, I saw a news story a couple of days ago about a group of developers who have gotten the government of Honduras to agree to keep their laws and taxes, aside from property taxes, off of a new city they’re building there. The place is being designed as close to free as they can achieve. I was especially interested that the first cut at the laws the will have there will be the commercial laws of the state of Texas…

    At any rate: There’s a reason Paul Poberezny is revered in the aviation world, and that EAA has grown to what it is today. A trip to Airventure at Oshkosh is very enlightening, especially once you get away form the manufacturers’ tents.

  105. Depending on your skill set, your choices may be limited. ESR has written before about the really awful culture of death marches, mistreatment of comp time, etc. and he suggests that more developers shouldn’t put up with it, but there just aren’t enough places for developers to work that don’t have such practices in place.

    Worse, the solution that other trades have successfully adopted to combat these problems appears to have been demonized out of consideration as of the late 20th century. Yes, I’m talking about forming labor unions.

    The fact that so many programmers consider themselves born-out-their-own-asshole libertarians doesn’t help matters.

  106. @Jay:
    “At any rate: There’s a reason Paul Poberezny is revered in the aviation world, and that EAA has grown to what it is today.”

    And there was nothing inevitable about that growth. We could easily have a world with no homebuilt aircraft permitted, and in which light aircraft technology stagnated after 1980 (if not sooner).

  107. >I’m surprised nobody mentioned Mark Shuttleworth from Canonical.

    I actually thought of him in this context of prophets, but , for one, ESR asked about early prophets, pre-RMS. Shuttleworth is very, very recent.

    Then, “bug #1″ is a stage 3 message. The interesting present day messages would be aiming for level 4/5

    Otoh, I think Shuttleworth shows prophet-like behaviour in his call for cadence (synchronised cooperation and/or coordinated release cycles between distros and their upstreams) and in his attempts to push Linux, and free software in general, towards an economically viable product for the masses and build a community around that ideal.

  108. >Then, “bug #1? is a stage 3 message.

    Disputable. It’s presented as competition with an adversary, yes, but Stage 4 messages are often like that. I see it as a call for Stage 4 behavior.

  109. ESR has written before about the really awful culture of death marches, mistreatment of comp time, etc. and he suggests that more developers shouldn’t put up with it, but there just aren’t enough places for developers to work that don’t have such practices in place.

    We have good mobility and are in relatively high demand. Unless you want to work in the game industry or a startup you can find a job that isn’t a constant death march.

    People with broader skill sets, like ESR and myself, have options that an excellent programmer with no other talents may not have.

    What? Like people skills? I can’t imagine an excellent programmer that couldn’t find an alternative job otherwise.

  110. >What? Like people skills?

    The ability to write English (or whatever language is local to you) well is also quite valuable.

  111. @Jeff Read: “Worse, the solution that other trades have successfully adopted to combat these problems appears to have been demonized out of consideration as of the late 20th century. Yes, I’m talking about forming labor unions.”

    The labor union paradigm is denial of service, and works only insofar as the employer does not have an alternative to the union labor. In most areas (and particularly in things like development), the employer *will* have alternatives.

    Places the employer does not have an alternative will be those with union friendly local laws, and employers there may exercise options to relocate to places that don’t.

  112. @Nigel: “What? Like people skills? I can’t imagine an excellent programmer that couldn’t find an alternative job otherwise.”

    I can. What if there aren’t alternative jobs where you are, and there are reasons relocation may not be a viable option?

  113. Admiral Grace Hopper (mentioned briefly in earlier comments), “Amazing Grace”, clearly also was a prophet in the sense of her instrumental work within DoD for the design and implementation of COBOL, still in use today world-wide.

    In 1991, President George Bush presented her with the National Medal of Technology “for her pioneering accomplishments” in the field of data processing.
    ( from http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Grace_Hopper.aspx )

    The official http://www.history.navy.mil/bios/hopper_grace.htm web page talks about her special Presidential appointment, way past mandatory retirement age.

    A very inspiring prophet indeed.

  114. Ham radio prophets? Others have implied Hiram Percy Maxim. Move forward a couple of decades and Ross Hull might fill the bill, or Fred Sutter in a kind of small-scale way. But the hobby started out as a Stage 4/5 thing and deliberately social-engineered itself for a long, long time to stay there.

  115. Conspicuous by their absence:

    Bob Kahn (can’t really talk Licklider, Cerf, Taylor without Kahn)
    Steve Wozniak!
    John Draper (Capt. Crunch)

  116. I concur with the Ted Nelson selection, regardless of the lack of success with Xanadu. Everyone was carrying around “Computer Lib” in the mid-70′s. Also, he’ll likely be dismissed as a hobbyist but David Ahl was very influential in bringing personal computing to the masses via “Creative Computing”, including source code, which was hard to come by before the bulletin board systems (BBS) got started. Ahl was a prophet, for sure.

  117. @Morgan Greywolf/Morgan Greywolf: I’m not ignorant: I used Bravo (I worked at Xerox in the same building as the Bravo developers, but was working on the Pilot operating system for Xerox Star) and all the early versions of Word on PC and Mac. I also went to college in the late 1960s with Charles Simonyi, and developed a Snobol4 system with him (CAL Snobol). Later, Charles told me that the runtime for Excel was based directly on the runtime of our Snobol system. So when I say “And the Bravo WYSIWYG word processor was effectively forward-ported into Microsoft Word”, I don’t mean that Microsoft stole Xerox’s code, but I do mean that when the same person is the metaprogrammer for Bravo (written in BCPL), BravoX (written in Butte), and Word (written in the language you don’t want to go into), there are likely to be strong resemblances of data and control structures.

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